So let me start off by saying this isn’t a straight-up defense of Tosh or his humor or the specific throw-away, ad-libbed joke he tossed at an audience as a response to a heckler who showed up at a comedy club with no idea who he was because she was there to see Dane Cook—even though she and her friend agreed “that Cook’s style is not really our taste” but “we were open-minded about what the others [names they didn’t recognize, Tosh among them] had to offer.” So if you’ve read the blog, you know by now the story or the competing account from the club manager or whatever.
But so here’s the thing, this is a entertainment consumer who went in “open-minded” to a place where, on a nightly basis, other human beings get on stage and say intensely personal things from the dark parts of the brains that make them smile in the hopes that these, the dark things, will make other smile or even laugh. Which means, if she really is open-minded and was more than just a comedy tourist, she’d understand that not every joke comes out ready for TV. Some of the things said on stage in the heat of a moment probably never should be said again.
Which brings me to my next point: Daniel Tosh is a funny guy (check out his well-written bit about cargo pants if you don’t believe me), but this was the worse kind of lazy, unfunny joke he could’ve used to deal with an audience member who had an issue with his subject matter. There was no responsibility in what he said, that’s pretty easy to see. But when you’re trying to deal with someone shouting at you from across a room, responsibility doesn’t often enter the mental equation. I like to think that Daniel Tosh wouldn’t actually set out to write a joke about an audience member getting raped, but what we’re dealing with is the fact that he told one.
Which brings me to my next point: Some jokes are bad because they aren’t funny and some jokes are bad because they’re offensive, and Tosh told one that was a pretty potent combination of both. Whether or not you agree with his “artistic decision” here or the general aesthetic of his career, the guy has a right to explore the aspects of society he wants to as sources of humor, even if he does so lazily, carelessly, and poorly. He’s the one who chooses what he says to comedy clubs and living rooms full of people, and those people get to choose how they respond.
Likewise, the audience member had a right to choose to respond to Tosh’s specific choice in this situation however she saw fit, like yelling at him while he tried to do his job. And then, likewise, Tosh had a right to respond to her response however he saw fit, which was with a bad “joke” about her getting/being raped (depending on whose account you believe). Then the ball was in her court again, and she chose to take it to a blogger friend who incited an internet firestorm for the kind of language that occurs on Xbox Live about two million times a second.
There’s no defense of making an unfunny comment—its bad for business and bad for art. But there is a defense of the right to make unfunny comments. Regret happens, it’s a part of life and work, and so people who try to push the envelope and make us laugh at ourselves for a living naturally are going to say things they regret sometimes (or at least things they should), and no one in the audience has the right to censor even potentially regrettable thoughts. That’s the idea of absolute free speech: it’s not just for the helpful stuff, it covers bad things, too. (E.g., a recent Supreme Court decision that nullified a piece of legislation outlawing posing as a decorated soldier.)
Just because someone says something bad or evil doesn’t mean we get to demand some recompense from him. All we can do is remember what an ass-hole some guy was that one time and keep tabs on him to see whether or not he learned a lesson and stopped telling bad jokes or found a way to make his bad jokes good. Either way, his right to free speech only matter if we exercise our right to free listening.
This article was written as a response to the recent Daniel Tosh rape joke controversy. If you like Max’s writing style, check out his MAD MAX column that we feature here on RASCAL. He’s also on Twitter.
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